Festival forecast

Peter Maxwell Davies launched the St Magnus festival on a shoestring 28 years ago. How did the Orkneys shape one of Europe's most remarkable musical events?
June 18, 2005

Benjamin Britten once said that a good festival should involve a journey to a special place, preferably not too easy to reach and requiring a certain amount of preparation and effort. By this count the St Magnus festival in Orkney, now in its 28th year, qualifies, along with Bayreuth, Aldeburgh and Wexford, as one of the finest of Europe's festivals, combining originality, charm, ambition and innovation. When, back in 1977, the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, now Master of the Queen's Music, bought an abandoned house on the Orkney island of Hoy, with, as he recalls, 60 years of sheep-muck inside, he discovered a place that reflected his need for the restorative element of remoteness. "Orkney," he says, "had started to work its magic… I felt both my work and my own self reaching for a new, still centre, to do with a sense of place and calm."

He conceived the idea of a festival, based on his own musical taste—rigorous and often difficult modernism—and found common cause with local singers and successive generations of schoolchildren, who, perhaps surprisingly, took to singing his work. The first festival, in 1977, had the support of half a dozen locals to sustain it; not many Orcadians had heard of Davies and the local council was suspicious. But Davies was right to trust his instincts about the people. The original performance of The Martyrdom of St Magnus in the Romanesque splendour of St Magnus Cathedral, where the saint's remains are buried, is still remembered by festival veterans as one of the most moving events they have ever attended—the evocation of a murder which echoes through the islands' history. The performance of Mary Thomas as Blind Mary, weaving "the bloody web of war" in the libretto by Orkney's great poet George Mackay Brown, raised hairs on the back of the head: "The warp is stretched/For Warriors' death/The weft in the loom/Drips with blood."

From those early beginnings, the festival has grown in stature and breadth. In June it will embark on a programme of some 30 performances, not one of them conventional. Ian Ritchie, who is standing in as director for a year while the festival's longstanding incumbent Glenys Hughes takes a sabbatical, has decided to launch with the premiere (most St Magnus events are premieres) of a piece entitled Notes in Time of War, based on songs created by around 100 children from five Orkney schools inspired by the wartime diaries they have been reading of children in Bosnia, Iraq, Northern Ireland and Rwanda. It is a promenade concert, beginning at the "Peedie Sea," a little sea-fed loch in the capital Kirkwall (weather permitting) and ending in Orkney's state of the art concert hall, the Pickaquoy Centre.

Concerts move from the 12th-century cathedral of St Magnus to tiny island churches reached only by ferry; from the Stromness town hall to the immaculate Italian chapel on the island of Lambholm, built by prisoners of war in a Nissen hut, now restored to become what must be the most romantic concert hall anywhere. I doubt if I shall ever forget, in 1999, hearing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, itself composed in a concentration camp during the last war, re-created in this tiny, tin-roofed building, a testament to human endurance. It is this kind of magic that has drawn composers and performers of the stature of Vlado Perlemuter, Isaac Stern, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Richard Rodney Bennett, John Eliot Gardiner and Thomas Zehetmair to make the long journey to Orkney. But it is in the relationship between the demanding art of Maxwell Davies and islanders willing to take a chance that the festival finds its character.

St Magnus festival, Orkney Islands, 17th-22nd June